Flight of Fancy
Two years ago, Cirque du Soleil's Quidam so enthralled local audiences that most people waited until they were well outside the blue-and-yellow big top before asking of the bizarre storyline, "What did it all mean?" This time around, the Montreal troupe's high-flying virtuosity proves just as impressive in Dralion, a high-tech collision of Orient and Occident that favors deafening, synthesized sound over ticklish, avant-garde intricacies. This year's paramount question might be more like, "Who cares what any of it meant -- why was it SO LOUD?" Still, the show's trademark mixture of clowning, dance and incredible physicality lingers in the imagination long after the ears stop ringing.
In fact, before director Guy Caron and an international company of 54 artists forge ahead with their (what else?) "rite of passage for the new millennium," a trio of clowns -- and a seemingly reluctant audience member -- tickles a few funny bones. Once those enjoyable shenanigans finish (it's a clever way to get latecomers seated without delaying the show's start), the light and sound systems crank up to their blinding and cacophonous levels, as several dancers in iridescent costumes spill onto the circular stage. Although it's hard to tell what each flailing entity is supposed to depict without forking over twelve dollars for a program, four leading characters represent earth, wind, fire and water. From time to time, this splendiferous nature family (including a quartet of lavishly costumed juvenile offspring) returns between circus acts as a sort of gentle chorus, reminding us all of the profoundly symbiotic relationship between humanity, nature -- and expensive fabric.
Then the sinew-defying feats and riotous sketches begin and, save for a lengthy intermission, the prodigiously talented company dazzles nonstop for the next two and a half hours. Throughout, the show's underlying theme of East meets West is underscored by the presence of several creatures known as dralions -- lumbering, hairy behemoths that are half-dragon, half-lion and are portrayed by nimble-footed performers costumed in front-half/back-half-of-horse fashion.
The true stars of the show, however, are the legions of acrobats, most of whom hail from China, who contort, somersault and soar over the stage with exhilarating abandon. Flanked by one of the nature fairies, a young woman strides to center stage and takes her place atop a tall balancing cane that's capped with a half-foot-square piece of wood. For the next few minutes, she performs one-hand stands while bending her body until it's nearly parallel with the stage floor -- all while maintaining a ramrod posture and, at times, executing an inverted scissor kick that permits her to shift her weight from one hand to another in the twinkling of an eye.
Following a brief but engaging sequence in which several men flip about sizable bamboo totems while leaping over a low-furling flag, a red-haired contortionist juggles three, then five, then seven balls with mesmerizing skill. While, of course, twisting his taut form and belly-flopping onto a platform with gossamer-like grace. Moments later, a breathtaking display of teeterboard acrobatics earns cheers when two women jump onto one end of a board to rocket another onto a human tower of three. (Can they possibly catapult one more to stand on the shoulders of the fourth?) Like all of the acts here, the squadron of fifteen gymnasts succeeds in pushing all imaginable boundaries without compromising their safety or, for the most part, the audience's comfort. The company's wise precautions (which consist of belaying most performers who work more than about ten feet above the floor) prove especially valuable during Act One's final "scene": a thrilling double-trapeze act in which four daring performers speed through the air while hanging onto each other's wrists. Talk about trusting your co-workers. After intermission, five dancers perform a close-quarters ballet, rising en pointe while perched atop a tiny field of oversized, industrial-strength light bulbs -- by itself a worthy accomplishment. But when one woman extends her foot over her head and balances a colleague on her upturned sole (while maintaining her tiptoe-ish stance atop the lighted glass spheres), the diminutive coterie earns a smattering of applause from those few spectators who aren't too dumbstruck to clap.
The remainder of the show features a couple of balancing acts, amazing leaps and counterleaps through a series of miniscule wooden hoops and hilarious sendups of several acts by clowns clad in knockoff versions of their fellow performers' costumes. Best of all, a breathtaking aerial pas de deux earns two airborne hoofers the night's most sustained volley of inter-act applause -- proof that a balanced blend of artistry and athleticism is more gratifying than bowling over the audience with high-minded sound and fury.
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